Catholics are weird… Really weird. We keep whole dead people, or bits of dead people in our Churches, on display and people pray in front of them, or worse… touch or kiss the actual bit or the fancy boxes they are stored. Some of these bits and bodies are centuries old and they don’t look too good for their age, despite the elaborate casing they are stored in.
Having lived in Italy and travelled around the Mediterranean a fair bit, just about every Church boasts some kind of dead bit of holy person (some of dubious origins). Two out of my three patron saints have been preserved in this way. St Catherine of Siena’s various body parts go on tour and the nearby town of Assisi is home to St Clare’s hair and fingernails.
I have visited quite a few of these relics. San Marco in Venice has a very impressive collection of over a hundred different relics. Many people I talk about relics with, especially ethnic Anglo-Saxons, think at best, it’s a little weird and at worst, it’s just downright disgusting and the dead should be left in peaceful interment out of sight and out of the reach of superstitious peasants.
Having both Italian and Anglo-Saxon ethnic heritage, and also being born and raised in an Post-Enlightenment nation-state that prides itself on its rational rejection of superstition, I’m caught in the middle on this matter.
On the one hand, I do absolutely agree that the spiritual attributes of the physical remains of people recognised as saints can very go much off the rails in to obsession and into idolatry. On the other hand, the desire to scrub all reminders of our mortality from sacred spaces because they make us uncomfortable and they’re not very pretty, is a pathology all on its own.
As always, virtue lies somewhere in the middle between the two extremes. However, it is in my opinion that latter pathology is a far more damaging one than the former.
Here is why. A superstitious peasant chanting obsessive novenas everyday in front of reliquary (the official name for those fancy boxes) can far more easily redirected spiritually in a healthier direction, but a person who is disgusted and horrified by human remains also has issues with living bodies and all their glorious and less-than-glorious reality.
The people who have problems talking about poop will also be quite profoundly uncomfortable with open caskets at funerals, ‘excessive wailing’ and be scandalised by said superstitious abuela praying to St Rose of Lima’s head.
It’s a sad way to live, because its not really living, its cowering in fear from the physical reality of death and of our living bodies that are wonderfully and fearfully made, farts and all. In our efforts to eradicate superstition, we’ve obsessively insulated ourselves from death and mortality. Our dead are hidden away in morgues and funeral homes, tended to by select specialists until they are ‘presentable’, displayed in hushed rooms where only quiet weeping is allowed and mortality is tactfully avoided in conversation forever afterwards.
At the same time, some of the biggest hit movies and TV have featured zombies and other such animated dead bodies in all the goriest fashion possible. The dead have returned from the margins to remind us that very little separates us from them. Zombies owe much of their popularity to the fact that in the Western world, death and dying has been so sanitised and marginalised from the everyday of our lives, the fascination squeezes out sideways into an adrenaline-filled war against the dead and the contemplation of our mortality.
Death is a part of life, and that is why Catholic Churches are full of dead bodies, some famous, some anonymous. Those relics remind us that death is not the end. The soul of that person lives in the glory of heaven, awaiting the real glory that is yet to come: the resurrection of the body. Not a zombie-like flesh and instinct monster, but a real human being. Relics are an uncomfortable reminder that we are destined to die, but death does not have the final word. Those relics rebel against both the obsessive desire to avoid death and mortality and the unhealthy impulse to make war on the dead.
Relics remind us that we will pass away, our spirit will be torn from our body like lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, but that wall will not be forever. Relics, seen properly are profoundly hopeful and an invitation to bring death and dying into the light of contemplation. Indeed, the bits of many saints have driven me into contemplation of my own mortality and the mortality of my loved ones. Facing death forces one to reevaluate one’s life and whether we actually live in accordance to the things that we say are important to us. Living authentically in communion with God is what the Church desires of each member and is not afraid of resorting to shock-tactics to give people the impetus they need to move. That’s why dead bodies belong in Churches and why I’m okay with that.